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I was going to say "get ready for the first mature(sex) fic on OMPR," but it turns out that that's not true! It's actually the third, behind Project Horizons and Looking Lively. Still, it's certainly the first story with significant erotic elements to come across my blog. Is that a decision I'll immediately regret? Find out below, in my review of Cold In Gardez's Salvation.
Impressions before reading: I've had an eye on this story for a long time; it's a fic which, time and again, I've had described to me as worth reading even for someone who doesn't consider sexual content a selling point. And more than that, as a story in which that sexual content is a necessary part of the story being told. Given the author's long history of writing quality works (seriously, go check the Fandom Classics and 6-Star Reviews tabs; dude gets a solid 4 out of 5 stars every time I review something of his), I'm optimistic going in, and at least expect the kind of quality prose and emotional honesty which I've come to associate with his stories.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: A chance encounter between Rainbow Dash and Rarity while in Fillydelphia leads the two to return to Ponyville to visit their friends--to see them all for the first time in half a year. There, they discover that each is hurt more deeply than they realized, and struggle to be for one another what the other needs.
Thoughts after reading: This story and I got off to a rough start. Sure, the writing is beautiful--not merely correct, but constructed in an actively appealing way, with phrases matched to tone, and sentence pacing and complexity mirroring the narrative speed, whether leisurely or frenetic. Likewise, the initial picture of Rarity which we see is one which is easy to reconcile with the pony from the show, even as it demonstrates all the ways she's changed--some distressingly dramatic--over the past few years (and the bits that seem jarringly out of character are framed in such a way that it's clear they're meant to be). But frankly, I expect that from CiG. What I found that disappointed me from the start was that the first sex scene really wasn't narratively necessary at all.
Sure, the fact that Rarity had sex with the stallion in the prologue is important, and there's some important character information that's imparted as part of the sex scene... but nothing that a less detailed depiction of the mechanics of the act wouldn't have been perfectly capable of communicating. On a personal level, I also found it an uncomfortable blend of human and equine; a fully "horse" approach I might have been able to appreciate academically, while a fully "human" one I might have been more successful as erotica. Here, the mix of both ended up leading to neither. After one chapter, I was very afraid that I was embarking not on a 150,000-word story, but a 100,00-word story interspersed with 50,000 words worth of largely tangential porn.
I should perhaps pause here to explain what the problem with that would be, for anyone wondering what's wrong with a few extra clop scenes. The first problem is easy enough to elucidate, in any case: plenty of people have no interest in reading pony porn, and plenty of those who are interested in pony porn don't care about the story, and are in fact likely to prefer something more focused; by combining the two, a story can easily end up with the worst of both worlds: all the delayed gratification of a novel, with all the opprobrium of pornography. The other problem with unnecessary porn is the same problem with pointless gore, or unmoored referential "humor:" by wasting words on material which is irrelevant to the story (not necessarily the A plot, but the story in the larger sense of the word), the story itself is diminished.
Yet, thankfully, that is not what I found as I read on. The early erotica doesn't serve much of a story purpose, but it does at least have a meta-textual reason for existing: within the first few thousand words, the reader gets a clear idea of exactly what they're in for, explicitness-wise, and can calibrate their expectations (or decide if they even want to read on) accordingly. But after that, there are numerous further sexual depictions of varying detail and mood, which I found to be collectively crucial to understanding both Dash and Rarity's characters. In that regard--in terms of making its constituent parts matter--I was exceedingly pleased with what I read.
This story isn't just about sex, of course, and three good-sized paragraphs about it probably overstates its role in the story. Yes, there's plenty of sex, but this is fundamentally a story about healing, from wounds both unforeseeable and self-inflicted. CiG doles out information at a perfectly calibrated pace, especially as regards Rarity; the reader knows for almost the entire story that they're not seeing all there is to her, but the layers are peeled back in a most satisfying way. To my surprise, the story even managed to, well, surprise me with a few of its later revelations. And throughout all of this is woven deceptively slice-of-life-ish scenes which use seemingly low-stakes conversations and peaceable settings to explore both the ways in which the principal characters are hurting, and how they are recovering.
There's also a huge amount of cultural and biological exploration of the different pony races, with the author weaving in tiny details throughout his story which give it the ring of truth, then holding to and expanding upon them. The details of preening, of pegasus familial bonds, even of things like where different ponies prefer to make love (unicorns are partial to beds, in case you're wondering)--the minutia on display here suffuses the entire story with an air of realism which draws one in, even as the carefully unobtrusive presentation ensures that the reader isn't pulled out by some ill-timed aside expounding upon an irrelevant interpolation.
And that the reader isn't pulled out allows for the raw emotion of the piece to fully hit home. I'm not talking about the sex, here; this is a story that explores grief and anger with an honesty that few stories (fanfiction or non-) are able to. Without going into too much detail, I think those of you who have read my reviews for a while know that mind-altering magic is something I hate seeing stories use blithely, or without exploring (or at least, considering) the implications of invading the sanctity of another person's inner thoughts. Salvation explores this theme, but does so with both a narrative awareness of the weight of what's happened, and a deft hand when it comes to exploring how characters would react to having their brains picked without their consent, in a manner I found exemplary. And that emotional honesty is doubly crucial to this, a story which also romantically entangles its main characters. Rather than simply create a situation in which the two ponies can be together and take the attraction as a given (or worse, justify it with a few lazy platitudes or basic character observations), this fic creates an emotional space in which the needs and desires of both Rarity and Dash are explored, then allows those to collide in the kind of captivating mess which love so often creates. There's plenty of drama here, but it's not the manufactured, contrived sort; when a trust issue is explored, it isn't because of some sitcom-esque comedy of errors, but a genuine failing and flaw which is being addressed--not "solved," but addressed.
The writing here, as I said above, is top-notch. CiG uses dreams in various ways, both in an impressively realistic (full of random elements, but seemingly coherent) and deliberately hyper-lucid. Likewise, he uses shifts from Dash to Rarity's perspective and back to strategically control the flow of information, and allow the reader to learn of their afflictions at a pace which at once whets the desire to know more, and also whets that edge enough to keep reading from being an exercise in frustration. Even the vulgarity--which caught me quite off-guard at first--is used with precision, telling without so many words about the situation, and the characters themselves. From the literal words on the page all the way to the overarching plot, this is a story that has plenty of depths to plumb.
When I sat down to begin writing this post, I didn't know how many stars I was going to give it. That happens to me a significant minority of the time; often, I find that putting my thoughts down in review format helps clarify the decision when that's the case. With this story, the more I looked back at my notes, the more I re-read passages, the more I found to appreciate.
A five-star story isn't meant to be "a story everyone will love;" trying to write something that everyone likes is a fool's errand, and the results are invariably forgettably inoffensive at best, and more often shallow to the point of utter irrelevance. Salvation is not a story that everyone will care for, that's certainly true. But it is a story that transcends the reductive "porn with a plot" description that one person who recommended it to me slapped it with; it's a story that can speak to readers of a variety of interests, and tastes, and which has something to say to every one of them. And that something is at times profound in its meaning, and invariably captivating in its presentation. That's exactly what I want out of a story--any story. For me, that's an exemplar.
Recommendation: If explicit sex isn't something you can stomach in ponyfiction, then obviously you'll want to give this a pass. If you aren't sure if amatory equines are something you can handle, you might consider trying the prologue--within a few thousand words, you'll have seen a good representation of how sexual this story gets. But if you want to see a searingly harsh imagining of loss and discovery, framed with unflinching emotional honesty and yet suffused with a thoughtful, wavering streak of idealism... if you want that, I highly recommend this story.
Next time: Pretty In Pink, by DavidReingold